In Memoriam: The Straight Block
Disc brakes and 1x drivetrains. These are the sort of things that belong on mountainbikes, are questionable on cross bikes, and should make an immediate trip to the rubbish bin when it comes to road bikes. Change for the sake of change; gimmickry masquerading as innovation. And to make matters worse, the appearance of 11-speed blocks has killed the last vestige of the complexity of our sport: block composition and size.
The question of gear choice was once one of the most critical decisions a Cyclist could make when tackling a course. In The Rider, Tim Krabé describes his gear choice and those of his competitors; throughout the book, he fixates upon which gear he is riding in. José Manuel Fuente used to use higher gears that the other climbers to intimidate them. Andy Hampsten famously rode only odd-numbered gears because obviously even-sized gears made his palms go sweaty.
Sean Kelly belabored his choice to use a 13-25 block versus a 12-23 for the 1989 World Championship Road Race. He knew he couldn’t climb as well as the other favorites and wanted a 25 to save his legs over the final climb. If, however, he managed to get over the hill, he would surely need the 12 in order to win the sprint. It was a classic catch-22; use a block that he could win the sprint with but get dropped on the climb, or get over the hill and lose the sprint. The race lay in the balance of a single tooth on a cog.
We used to build our blocks, not buy a complete cassette on ebay. The idea was to keep the gears as close together as possible with a straight block being the holy grail and the relative smallness of the biggest gear being a declaration of your status as Hardman. Every tooth beyond a 1 tooth jump was a sacrifice; every step beyond a 21 or 23 tooth cog was a silent admission of your sissiness as a Cyclist. The Pros today are riding 11-28 blocks on every kind of terrain, every day. Even at Paris-Roubaix, one of the only races flat enough to still require little more than a 19 even for us mortals.
Committing to nothing lower than a 19-tooth gear requires a suitcase of courage, poor planning, or both. And it looks tough as nails, that tight cluster of gears at the back wheel. Not like these big dinner plates we see riding around all over the place these days. You could serve a nice helping of Steak Frites on some of these modern blocks. Disgraceful. And while I’m not building my blocks anymore, I’m certainly still choosing a cassette for the terrain and plan to continue doing so until I’m pushing up daisies, thank you very much.